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by Donald Kuspit
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Stupid. Of attributes, actions, ideas, etc.: characterized by or indicating stupidity or dullness of comprehension.

-- The Oxford Universal Dictionary

Since artistic activity is essentially creative, we should expect art to be determined by exclusively libidinal urges; and it was in this light that art was originally regarded by psychoanalysts, before the importance of the destructive impulses had been appreciated, and the significance of ambivalence and sadism had been properly understood. In the light of more recent psychoanalytic discoveries, however, it becomes evident that the destructive impulses must play an important part in the phenomenon of art. It becomes evident, for example, that art may be a channel for the expression of sadistic phantasies, and that this actually happens may be seen in the pictures of Goya and of the Surrealists. Of course, the sadism of Goya and the Surrealists is expressed chiefly in the subject-matter of their pictures; but sadism may be expressed in the brushwork of a picture, even when it is absent in the subject—as in the case of Van Gogh.

-- W. R. D. Fairbairn, "Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art"(1)

The most telling detail in John Baldessari’s populist altarpieces -- among them Heel (1986), Bloody Sundae (1987) and Exterior View (1988), all asymmetrical geometrical arrangements of black-and-white movie stills and/or news photographs -- is their use of a circle of color, usually a primary, and small relative to the total work, but large enough to blot out the some of the faces in some of the "found" images. Thus a man’s head disappears under a yellow circle in Heel, and the heads of three men disappear under red, blue and yellow circles in Exterior View and Bloody Sundae. The heads of the kissing couple in the lower section of the latter work are blotted out by red and blue circles. The heads of the couple in the central panel of Three Red Paintings (1988) are blotted out by green and yellow circles, and the head of the man in the upper panel is blotted out by a blue circle. The head of the butcher in Figure (Green) with Side of Beef/Two Figures (Grey) with Food (1990) is blotted out by a green circle. The circles are in effect ironical beauty marks, as "Pure Beauty," the disingenuous title of Baldessari’s exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests.

Sometimes whole figures are blotted out, as the two figures are in the last mentioned work, and in Crowd with Shape of Reason Missing (1985), Inventory (1987) and The Duress Series: Person Climbing Exterior Wall of Tall Building / Person on Ledge of Tall Building / Person on Girders of Unfinished Tall Building (2003). In Three Red Paintings and Frames and Ribbons (1988) representational painting itself -- as distinct from some detail of a photograph representing something (whether in a movie illusion or social reality) -- is blotted out: beautified into pure art, as it were. One cannot help thinking of Alexander Rodchenko’s so-called Last Paintings, shown in the "5x5=25" exhibition held in Moscow in September 1921. Three monochromatic paintings, each in a primary color -- Pure Red Color, Pure Blue Color, Pure Yellow Color -- supposedly "reduced painting to a logical conclusion." "It’s all over," Rodchenko announced, with arrogant naiveté and theoretical dogmatism. John Milner describes them as "work[s] of anti-art, a cultural gesture," "esthetically boring" because they had "no room for illusion," and, more crucially, because their blankness -- each was a single color "spread unremittingly across" the canvas -- indicated Rodchenko’s abandonment of "creative work."(2) 

Is erasing or effacing an image creative work? It is an old avant-garde technique of negative appropriation, as it might be called, perhaps most famously evident in Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). It is foreshadowed in Duchamp’s Tu’m (1918), his officially last painting. Three real safety pins clumsily repair a brutal gash in the canvas, which remains conspicuous however fake (a trompe l’oeil illusion), suggesting that painting is irreparably damaged, not to say insignificant and absurd. Two of Duchamp’s readymades appear as shadows, indicating Duchamp’s tendency to erasure -- the Large Glass (1915-23) is a sort of erased painting -- and self-erasure, as L.H.O.O.Q. Shaved (1965) suggests. The question remains: is such destructive erasure, not to say defacement, for L.H.O.O.Q. malevolently defaces Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (ca. 1503-1505), creative work? Are Duchamp’s Tu’m, Rodchenko’s Last Paintin, and Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing steps on the way to the "final solution" to hand-made art, leaving us with dregs of it in Baldessari’s esthetically boring, hollow mock Three Red Paintings? Has Duchamp’s dream of photography finally replacing painting come true?  

(It is worth emphasizing that Baldessari is heavily indebted to Rauschenberg. Certainly Baldessari’s idea of the inventory derives from Rauschenberg. One might say that Rauschenberg gives us hot-blooded, erratically organized inventories of things he has intensely experienced firsthand, while Baldessari gives us coldblooded, systematically organized inventories of things he has not experienced firsthand, only seen in the movies. Rauschenberg used found photographs extensively -- some would say wildly and indiscriminately, if with a certain unconscious logic in his mad method. The question is whether there is any unconscious logic in Baldessari’s somewhat more self-conscious use of found photographs. Rauschenberg’s overt imagery has a covert narrative meaning, giving it a certain enigmatic density, while Baldessari’s imagery lacks mystery, however cleverly manipulated -- but never with Rauschenberg’s brash subtlety. Baldessari’s images coordinate with one another, however eccentrically, and are strictly superficial, while Rauschenberg’s images organically integrate, sometimes by way of his brushwork -- altogether lacking in Baldessari -- sometimes by way of overlapping, among other methods. Certainly Baldessari’s works look simple-minded, impersonal, tame, mannered compared to Rauschenberg’s. It is as though the experimental, exploratory, risk-taking impulse that can be said to define avant-garde art at its most imaginative, and that seems to climax in Rauschenberg’s works -- always adventures in curiosity, wherever his curiosity may lead him -- has exhausted itself in Baldessari’s pseudo-avant-garde work, suggesting that he lacks imaginative courage.)

The influence of the movies on art can be traced back to Cubism, and the use of mass reproducible movie imagery has a precedent that dates back at least to Dali -- certainly to Warhol (and more broadly Pop Art) -- but for them it was an imaginative novelty, and had hypnotic power, which made it perversely convincing, while for Baldessari it is all stereotype, not to say stereotyped (which means popularized and mass reproducible) art. So is his circle of pure color an attempt to de-popularize and de-stereotype it -- or does the pure color confirm that pure art (more particularly, abstract painting reduced to -- dead-ended in -- monochromatic purity) has been popularized into a stereotype of itself, making it mass reproducible and photogenic, like a movie star? Has it become banally beautiful and carefully staged like a movie image? Is it part of the stage set? Baldessari’s works follow a prepared avant-garde script, just as the movies follow a prepared populist script -- no departing from the script, or changing it, as Rauschenberg does. Or does the circle of pure color announce the death of painting and the abundance of readymade photographs in Baldessari’s works signal photography’s triumph over painting?

But it may be a Pyrrhic victory, for painting -- however "purified" into monochromatic matter-of-factness, however much a trompe l’oeil illusion of purity, however small a space it occupies in the total picture -- sadistically cuts into Baldessari’s faces, figures and scenes, like Duchamp’s trompe l’oeil gash sadistically cuts into his illusion or "representation" of painting, for he "pictures" a painting rather than actually paints one. Baldessari’s circle of color is in effect the formal equivalent of Van Gogh’s informal brushwork, to recall Fairbairn’s comment on its sadistic character. The faces, figures and scenes are also ironical trompe l’oeil illusions or "representations" -- Van Gogh’s brushwork creates the illusion that one can touch what the figures, faces and scenes he represents, indicating that it is a kind of haptic trompe l’oeil. Like Duchamp, Baldessari is an expert in the art of faking art, including pure art, for, like Rodochenko’s three Last Paintings, Baldessari’s Three Red Paintings fake painting, argue that "it’s all over" by reducing painting to a boring monochromatic minimum. Baldessari’s little circles of color are not simply "anti-art cultural gestures," as Milner says Rodchenko’s are, and as Duchamp’s gash is, nor are his movie illusions simply representations of a stereotyped reality, but rather, taken together, assert that art as a whole is a fake and farce, an "act," a deception not worth the esthetic trouble. The circles of color and the movie illusions cancel each other out, reduce each other to inconsequence and absurdity, leaving the viewer with nothing, dulling feeling, denying insight -- which is why I call Baldessari’s work sadistically stupid pseudo-art. His sadistic "intervention" in the movie stills suggests that he has no comprehension of what they are about, just as his list of words naming -- "reading" -- the feeling expressed in the female face in Prima Facie (Third State): From Aghast to Upset (2005) suggests his (autistic?) lack of comprehension of the feelings of others, not to say his lack of empathy for, insensitivity to, and ambivalence about them. He flattens affect by reducing it to words, suggesting that the figure has no inner life. It’s all shallow words, more or less related to each other, rather than deep feelings.

Baldessari may have it in for beautiful female actresses more than male actors playing dangerous roles, as the bright red bloody nose he gives the actress in the black-and-white Pelicans Staring at Woman with Nose Bleeding (1984) suggests -- although to reduce a male figure to a flat hollow man is also sadistically insulting. Are the quacking, mocking pelicans an audience of men, as their long phallic beaks suggest? Is it a picture of beauty and the beast, suggesting Baldessari’s sadistic ambivalence about both? He seems much more of a hairy beast in his photographs of himself -- he’s certainly not a smooth-skinned beauty let alone matinee idol -- suggesting his disdain for pure beauty, as his reduction of it to a cheeky beauty spot (a bit of artificial cosmetic) suggests. Or did Baldessari, like a well-known female movie critic, completely "lose it in the movies," to refer to the title of her book? Or does he bite the movie hand that feeds his art, confirming that it is pseudo-art as he suggests movie art is, and suggesting that, like a "sadistic pervert," he is "fixat[e] on the oral sexual aim of biting."(3) His beauty mark of pure color -- pure color is uncannily sexy, just as movie beauties are sexually desirable -- certainly takes a bite into his movie imagery. He seems to have a bit of the modern "primitive" in him, for all the pseudo-sophistication of his work.      

There is a nihilistic hollowness to Baldessari’s work, an emotional and intellectual vacuum at its core, indicating that it is destructive rather than creative. It may be that his expressive figures are empty signifiers -- even, I dare say, the concentration camp corpses stacked in rows are just Inventory like the supermarket carts stacked in rows in another frame of that work -- and that movie art and pure art are grand illusions. But illusion, as the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott famously argued, is an "intermediate area between the subjective and that which is externally perceived," more particularly, "the intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common’," and as such the area of experience in which we "weave other-than-me objects into a personal pattern."(4) Baldessari’s personal pattern, such as it is, reveals a hostile attitude to the other-than-himself objects represented in the movies as well as the art that represents them. The circle of color is the card that trumps them, but it is the only magic card in Baldessari’s deck of tricks, suggesting the profound limitations of his so-called art. And the card loses its magic, for the detail it negates is reaffirmed by way of its absence, adding presence to the larger illusion to which it belongs.

"The task of reality-acceptance is never completed," Winnicott writes, "no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience," which "is in direct continuity with. . . play."(5) Baldessari does not know how to play the game of art well, mocking it in lieu of comprehending its function and value as illusion, whether the illusion involves objective color -- color reified into purity -- or feeling expressively dramatized and popularized in movies (which have their own other-than-me objectivity however much the viewer may identify with the characters in them and experience the scenes in them as personally familiar). He does not understand that art is what the psychoanalyst Gilbert Rose calls a "necessary illusion," an area of experience in which the subjective and objective are dialectically integrated even as they are dialectically differentiated.

Baldessari’s hatred of art -- his sadistic mocking of it, whether in popular representational or avant-garde pure form -- is self-evident in The Giacometti Variations, exhibited last year at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. There’s Giacometti’s elongated frail figure wearing an enormous round barrel. Imprisoned -- ghettoized -- in the space of the barrel, the figure seems to shrink into itself, and seems more isolated and forlorn than ever. Indeed, the barrel has a greater presence than the figure, however much it acknowledges the presence of the figure. But it problematizes the figure the way quotation marks problematize a word or idea. It doesn’t take much -- any? -- creative work to come up with Baldessari’s (bad) joke. It is a simplistic "invention," following an old formula of Dadaist contradiction, negation, provocation, at first glance superficially clever, at second glance banal. The long thin line of the figure and the bulky circle of the barrel are mechanically juxtaposed. The "dialectic" between them is unimaginative, rendering the "work" artistically inconsequential. The figure may be centered in the barrel, but the barrel subverts its esthetics. The barrel frames the sculpture with its commonplaceness, suggesting there is no serious difference between them. In good Duchampian fashion, any old found object can become a work of art or part of a work of art -- or take over a work of art -- even if one doesn’t put much work into it.

If Baldessari’s use of the barrel is not an anti-art gesture, I don’t know what is. The resulting "work" is stupid art -- a dumbing down attack on Giacometti’s art -- a dumbing it down into meaninglessness -- into "sensational" emptiness, for the figure doesn’t fill the empty barrel. Adding insult to injury, the barrel hangs by blue suspenders from the shoulders of the somber figure. Baldessari mocks the existential significance that Sartre saw in it, mocks its history as a reminder of the misery and destruction that Europe experienced in World War II, mocks the human figure in general as though what the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson called "the human esthetic" is meaningless. Baldessari’s pseudo-sculpture is a futile attempt at satire -- always implicitly sadistic -- and the last gasp of modernist anti-humanism, that is, what the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset famously described as the dehumanization of art in modernity. But the joke is on Baldessari, for the work shows the poverty of his mind and creativity, heavily dependent on the minds and creativity of others, whether those who make movies or pure art. He may put a barrel over Giacometti’s masterpiece, trivializing it, but his "art" is over a barrel and trivial -- a stupid fraud. His anti-art act is hardly a masterful act. The bulk of Baldessari’s work is media-ted Dadaistic farce -- farce devaluing art and esthetic experience --a nd as such an avant-garde farce: decadently avant-garde.      


(1)W. R. D. Fairbairn, "Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art," From Instinct to Self (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), II, 388-89

(2)John Milner, Russian Revolutionary Art (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1987), 46

(3)Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1972), 64-65

(4)D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London and New York: Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), 2, 5

(5)Ibid., 13        


"John Baldessari: Pure Beauty," organized by Jessica Morgan and Leslie Jones, recently closed an international tour that took it to the Tate Modern in London, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art